The school Christmas concert is on in the town hall tonight and Dale has a big part in it. When they pull back the curtain on the stage and fourteen kids stand there holding pieces of cardboard with block letters spelling the words â€œMerry Christmasâ€, he is going to be the letter M. He is also Joseph in the crib scene. His mother has made him a headpiece from an old orange dishtowel. He has a fake brown beard, and sandals borrowed especially for the concert from his cousin in Saskatoon
Miss Melanson, the principal, has overseen three weeks of happy rehearsals. She stands five feet eleven. The scent of her perfume sets fire to your nostrils and catches in your throat. Her hair is a shoe polish black but white at the roots, and she wears framed glasses with thick lenses that magnify her eyes in such a way that any student who catches her stern gaze freezes like rabbit in the headlights. The awe inspired by Miss Melansonâ€™s presence, however, does not prevent students from poking fun behind her back. Her Christian names are Mary and Theresa â€” Mary Theresa Melanson. She signs report cards and notes home with the initials M.T., letters that loop and flow on the page. M. T. Melanson. So the students call Empty. Empty Melanson.
Miss Melansonâ€™s Christmas program has a little bit of everything. There are carols sung by a thin-voiced childrenâ€™s choir; actually, itâ€™s mostly a girlsâ€™ choir because even fear of Miss Melanson doesnâ€™t move boys over ten years of age to sing. Then there are the dramas. Miss Melanson has produced a coup this year with Dickensâ€™s Christmas Carol because a girl who has a bone disease and actually wears a leg brace is playing Tiny Tim. Then thereâ€™s the crib scene which involves every child in the primary grades, with many of them being shepherds and others sheep.
There was a big winter storm on Thursday and it left drifts waist deep on the roads. It appeared for awhile as though only the people in town would be able to make it to the concert. But on Friday morning the telephone operator put out a general call, a long, long ring that brought everybody to the phone. She announced that the snowplough was coming through. It roars into town early in the afternoon, a big green tractor with a set of whirling and clanking blades mounted on the front. Benny Winkler sits in the cab, red-faced and bundled in layers clothing against the cold like some round old Father Christmas.
Benny had been a farmer on some rocky hills north of town but he could never get his work done in the busy seasons. At harvest time, when he took a sample of his wheat to the grain elevator in town to test for dry, he usually found the siren song of the Redlin Hotel on Main Street too much to resist. He sold the farm one day in a fit of disgust and started new career (well, not a career exactly because nobody in Redlin except the teachers and the manager of the Credit Union have careers). In summer Benny drives the municipal road grader and in winter the snowplough.
Benny also moonlights as janitor for the town hall and itâ€™s that job he prefers. Like many bachelors he is a shy man, but he also loves company and commotion and attention. Of all the yearâ€™s events, he likes the Christmas concert best of all. He likes the kids, likes the way they canâ€™t sit still and canâ€™t control their enthusiasm and excitement; he likes the carols, although heâ€™s too self-conscious to sing along; he likes the satisfaction that comes with his stoking the wood stove and the coal furnace, content in knowing that it is he who is keeping everybody warm. This is his hospitality. This is when he has everybody over for Christmas.
Tonight the hall is packed. All of the benches are filled to groaning by seven oâ€™clock. The program is all a blur to Dale as he stands on the stage and looks out into the dark and cavernous void filled by his parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents and everyone elseâ€™s too. Dale runs into trouble early in the opening act featuring the cardboard letters. The boy holding the S in the word â€œChristmasâ€ stands at the wrong side of the stage. Dale doesnâ€™t notice and he stands at the end instead of the beginning of the line, so that the phrase reads â€œSerry Christamâ€ instead of â€œMerry Christmasâ€.
The first carols are a bit tattered although you canâ€™t blame Miss Melanson, who directs her young choir with gusto. They sing Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels We Have Heard High, all the favourites. Most of these are performed while the crib scene is being played out. It takes such a long time that some of the sheep get frisky and it looks as though the cardboard stable might topple onto the Holy Family. During We Three Kings, a piece of wire from a wise manâ€™s cape hooks Daleâ€™s beard and pulls it off an event that draws applause from the audience.
Then the secular begins to take over. They sing Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Here Comes Santa Claus. Miss Melanson, who is also the emcee for the evening, reports several sightings of Santa. â€œHeâ€™s just been seen passing through Prince Albert and heâ€™s headed this way.â€ Cheers from many small throats. And later, â€œSanta and Rudolph and the other reindeer have just flown over Birch Hills.â€ Bedlam.
A light jingling of bells announces his arrival and there he is, bursting through the double doors at the back of the hall. â€œHo! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas.â€ He leaps into the air and leaps again. â€œMerry Christmas. Ho. Ho. Ho.â€ He drops his bulging white bag beside the wood stove, leans over and gives a big Santa bear hug to one of the women sitting there. â€œMerry Christmas.â€ He hops over one of the green benches and makes his way through the cluttered aisle to the front where Miss Melanson is standing below the stage. He sweeps her into his arms and tips her backwards. â€œMerry Christmas.â€ He gives her a big squeeze and a kiss full on the lips, then releases her and turns making as deep a bow as might be made by a stout man whose stomach is padded with pillows. Dale is standing there right by the tree, still trying to recover from the earlier indignity of losing his beard. He hears Miss Melanson say, â€œWhy, why, Mr. Winkler, you surprise me. And Merry Christmas to you.â€
â€œHo! Ho! Ho!â€
With that Santa settles down to his appointed task. Miss Melanson stands by the bright tree calling each child by name and passing that childâ€™s gift to Santa. He hands out the packages to the children with a lot of hugs and â€œHo Hoâ€™sâ€ and he digs deeply into his sack for little brown paper bags filled with candied nuts and oranges.
When it is over he skips to the back of the hall, turns and throws a kiss. â€œHo, ho, see you next year,â€ he says. Then he flings open the door and an icy blast of air rushes in. He steps alone into the darkened street bordered by the townâ€™s small houses with snow banked up around their foundations and smoke rising straight up from the chimneys.